Postmodern author David Markson has died


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David Markson, the author of “Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” has died. He was 82.

Markson was a serious writer with a sense of play. His book “This Is Not a Novel” was, in fact, a novel, if a fractured one; it was an assemblage of short interludes, which acknowledged the presence of the writer, that seemed to point toward a novel in progress rather than fully realize it.


His most seminal work, “Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” was told from the point of view of a woman who had either lost her mind or was the last person on Earth. Although this may not sound all that unusual, the form and narrative pushed all kinds of boundaries when it came out in 1988. Edgy Publisher Dalkey Archive described it as “a novel unlike anything David Markson — or anyone else — has ever written before.” When we were putting the Jacket Copy list of 61 essential postmodern reads together, “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” was a shoo-in.

In addition to his intellectual strengths, Markson made a few forays into pulp fiction. He wrote a couple of detective novels and the 1966 western “The Ballad of Dingus Magee.” Made into the 1970 comic western “Dirty Dingus Magee” starring, of all people, Frank Sinatra, Magee was reissued by Counterpoint Press in 2008. “The Ballad of Dingus Magee,” our reviewer George Ducker wrote, “stands like a dusty road marker, point pointing off into the wide distance of the path not taken.” Ducker continues:

Early bits of Markson’s elliptical style reverberate throughout. Much of the action takes place offstage, and the story twists and turns in an order that is anything but chronological. We see differing portraits of Dingus Magee through the confusion of other characters, while Markson paints a picture of western heroes who themselves are just victims of overexcitement and general misunderstanding.

Markson, who lived in New York, had been in failing health, according to his former wife and agent Elaine Markson. Official confirmation of his death arrived this morning, but Internet tributes began arriving over the weekend, spurred by unofficial word of the news. Sarah Weinman, who writes the L.A. Times blog column Dark Passages, was “gutted.” Matthew Cheney wrote, “There are people to whom I have almost said, ‘If you die without reading “Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” you will have lived a wasted life.’ ”

Markson was not as widely read as his fans would have hoped. In 2005, he addressed the predicament of being a relatively unknown yet acclaimed writer in an interview with Bookslut:

You write the way you do because you have to, and because it’s who you are. But nice things happen too, reputation or least two books about my work are being written that I’m aware of, and several essays or chapters in critical studies, and so forth. What more can someone in my position ask for? In some small way you’re finally paying back the debt you owe to those books that moved you and got you started in the first place -- books like Lowry’s, in my case, Willie Gaddis’ “The Recognitions,” Joyce, any number of others. Or am I making all this sound precious, here?


Although Markson had slowed down as a writer, he still had supporters at Dalkey Archive Press. “We’re publishing a critical book about his work (the first, I think) in the fall,” associate director Martin Riker told the L.A. Times. “He was happy about it, which is saying something, because he’d been pretty infirm.” Riker added, “He was an important writer for us,” as he was for contemporary literature as a whole.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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